Sydney was one of three British modified Leander Class light cruisers acquired by the RAN in the years immediately preceding World War II. Her sister ships were Perth and Hobart and in Australia they were known as Perth Class light cruisers.
In January 1935, Commander JA Collins, RAN, arrived at Wallsend-on-Tyne to take up the appointment of Executive Officer in Sydney. Collins, a Gunnery Officer, was a graduate of the inaugural entry of the Royal Australian Naval College and although he did not know it at the time, it would be under his leadership that Sydney would later reach the pinnacle of her career during the hard-fought Mediterranean campaign of World War II, which was then just four years distant.
Sydney was completed on 24 September 1935 and following acceptance trials she commissioned under the command of Captain JUP FitzGerald, RN. With a steaming party embarked, she then made the short voyage to Portsmouth where the balance of her Australian ship's company was waiting to join her. These men had been standing by in Portsmouth having sailed there in the obsolete light cruiser HMAS Brisbane which was being paid off for disposal.
The crew of Sydney liked what they saw before them. As her longest surviving officer, Lieutenant Commander John Ross, was to recall in his memoirs:
"It was an exciting and proud moment for us as we watched this brand new ship - the last word in cruiser design - come gliding in, her new paintwork shining and her deck snow-white in the morning sunlight."
Sydney was undeniably a modern, handsome looking ship with sleek businesslike lines. With an overall length of 555 feet, a beam of 56 feet 8 inches and a standard displacement of 7250 tons she was much larger than her predecessor. She was capable of 32.5 knots.
Her main armament consisted of eight 6-inch Mk XXIII guns, housed in four Mark XXI twin turrets. The two forward turrets were designated 'A' and 'B' respectively, while the two after turrets were designated 'X' and 'Y'. Her secondary armament comprised four, 4-inch Quick Firing, Mark V anti-aircraft guns and she was also equipped with eight 21-inch above-water torpedo tubes arranged in quadruple mountings. These mountings, when loaded, accommodated Mark IX torpedoes, each of which carried a 750-lb warhead. Her close range weapons included twelve 0.5-inch Vickers machine guns, sited on three Mk II quadruple mountings. She also had twelve .303 Lewis guns and four 3-pounder saluting guns.
During the Second World War she had a complement of 645 men which included six members of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) who maintained and operated her amphibian, catapult launched aircraft, but Sydney's peacetime complement was 510 men. She also carried four civilian canteen staff.
On 29 October, Sydney steamed out of Portsmouth with her crew's spirits high. World events, however, were to soon impact on the newly commissioned warship when Italy invaded Abyssinia. Sanctions were quickly imposed on Italy and Sydney's voyage home was interrupted when she received orders to proceed to Gibraltar to reinforce the Royal Navy's Second Cruiser Squadron. The time spent working with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean served her well and she continued to work up and hone her war-fighting skills. An unfortunate outbreak of rubella among her crew, followed by mumps, added to the crew's frustrations when the ship was placed under a quarantine order which prevented her crew from going ashore until the illness passed.
In March 1936 Sydney joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia in Alexandria as part of the First Cruiser Squadron. During the next four months the two Australian vessels continued to participate in numerous fleet exercises before finally sailing for home on 14 July.
Sydney's first Australian port of call was Fremantle, Western Australia. There she was warmly received by over 800 well-wishers, many of whom had fond memories of her namesake's last visit to Fremantle in May 1927. Stopping only for a day, she was soon steaming east, bound for Melbourne, Victoria where she arrived on 8 August. The citizens of Melbourne turned out in droves to see the RAN's new light cruiser and the ship received some 18,000 visitors when she was opened for inspection at Prince's Pier.
On 11 August, Sydney made her long awaited entry through Sydney Heads and into Port Jackson where her arrival was viewed from the shore by thousands of citizens who had turned out to see her. As she slowly made her way through the channel she was saluted with the sound of ferry whistles as she made her way to a buoy off Garden Island. Once again the citizens of the city of Sydney had a ship that they could call their own and Australia’s overt adulation for the new cruiser soon became an extension of the affection and esteem held for HMAS Sydney (I).
On 9 October 1937 Captain JWA Waller, RN, succeeded Captain Fitzgerald as Sydney's Commanding Officer. By that time Commander Collins had also been relieved, having spent almost three years as her Executive Officer. Between 1937 and the outbreak of war, Sydney was kept busy exercising, mostly on the Australian Station undertaking the usual round of seasonal training cruises.
Signs of a forthcoming war were apparent and it was with increasing apprehension that Australians watched Germany's and Italy's threats to peace in Europe steadily materialize. The Munich crisis of 1938 saw the partial mobilisation of Australia's naval forces; however, they were later stood down when it appeared that war had been averted.
In August 1939 it became apparent that the situation in Europe had again deteriorated and on 30 August the Commonwealth Government reaffirmed that it would place the ships of the RAN and its personnel at the disposal of the United Kingdom Government in the event of war. It did, however, find it necessary to stipulate that no ships (other than HMAS Perth) should be taken from Australian waters without prior concurrence of the Australian Government.
When the declaration of war came on 3 September 1939, Sydney had already taken up her war station at Fremantle. There she received a draft of an additional 135 ratings from the Fremantle Division of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) and several additional officers to boost her complement to a war footing of 645 men. The cruiser then commenced a rigorous series of gunnery and torpedo exercises off the Western Australian coast and began patrol and escort duties.
On 16 November, Captain JA Collins, RAN returned to Sydney to relieve Captain Waller, RN as her Commanding Officer. With three years experience under his belt as Sydney's Executive Officer, Collins selection as the first Australian officer to command the vessel was seen as a logical choice and one which was popular among many of the cruisers 'old hands', who were pleased to see him return.
On 1 May, Sydney was returning to Fremantle from escort duties when she received orders to proceed to Columbo at best speed. These orders were the instrument that would see Sydney leave the Australian Station and later win fame in the Mediterranean Sea. Taking passage via Singapore to refuel, Sydney arrived in Columbo on 8 May. Her time there, however, was short lived and she was soon directed to proceed to Alexandria, Egypt, where she joined the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet on 26 May.
In early June 1940, Sydney participated in a series of exercises as part of the Seventh Cruiser Squadron and it did not take her long to establish a reputation as an efficient and happy ship. On 10 June, with France about to fall and with Britain's future looking precarious, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. It was now clear to the men of Sydney that the balance of power in the Mediterranean could easily shift and that the struggle for control of the sea there, was about to begin in earnest.
Within hours of Italy's war declaration, the British Fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, RN, sailed on its first patrol sweep in the early hours of 11 June. Hostilities commenced almost immediately and first blood was drawn that night at 23:30 when the destroyer HMS Decoy reported sighting a submarine on the surface which she attacked. At dawn the next morning an oil slick two miles long was detected, although it was not known whether the submarine was destroyed. The enemy also struck quickly, when on 12 June the cruiser HMS Calypso was torpedoed by a submarine off Crete and sank with the loss of one officer and 38 ratings.
The Fleet completed its patrol sweep and returned to Alexandria two days later where it was forced to make a cautious entry due to the presence of minefields which had been laid by enemy submarines off the harbour entrance. The war in the Mediterranean had erupted swiftly and for the young Australian sailors in Sydney it was a sobering introduction to war at sea in the northern hemisphere.
On 22 June, France signed an armistice with Germany, the terms of which called for French Naval units deployed abroad to return to France where they would be demobilized under the supervision of the Axis forces. As feared, the balance of sea power had indeed shifted and the British Government resolved that under no circumstances should the French Fleet be permitted to fall into the hands of the enemy. It was a matter which was eventually settled by extreme measures on one hand, and considered diplomacy on the other.
In the Western Mediterranean the majority of the French fleet was in the port of Mers-el-Kebir at Oran. There the French Admiral in command was given an ultimatum. He could order his ships to sail to Britain or to the United States where they would be interned; demilitarize them in situ, or face annihilation by units of the Royal Navy. Tragically, with no positive response forthcoming, the majority of the fleet was neutralized with force.
In Alexandria, where Sydney was berthed, the situation was similarly tense, with many French naval units present in the harbour and now under the guns of the Commonwealth warships. There, Admiral Cunningham insisted on negotiating with his French counterpart, Vice Admiral Godfroy, who up until the signing of the armistice had been operating alongside the Allied warships. Through his diplomacy tragedy was averted when Godfroy agreed to demilitarize his ships, keep them in port and reduce their crews to 30 percent. It was with great relief that Sydney's menacing guns were trained back to the more benign fore and aft position.
Throughout June Sydney participated in numerous patrols and also took part in a major shore bombardment of Bardia later in the month. During this bombardment Sydney's amphibian Seagull aircraft was launched to assist in coordinating the cruiser's fire. The combined RAAF/RAN aircrew who manned the aircraft had no sooner begun their task when they were set upon by fighters which seemed intent on shooting them down. They put up a spirited defence in the lumbering amphibian before the aggressors broke off their attack leaving the Seagull full of holes and barely airworthy. Her pilot, Flight Lieutenant TM Price, RAAF, force landed at a British airfield some miles away but the plane was so badly damaged that it was written off. Price was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his courageous performance and credited his crew's survival to the slow speed of his aircraft.
On 28 June Sydney was involved in the pursuit of three enemy destroyers detected by aerial reconnaissance which were engaged at long range. One of them, the Espero, was crippled by Sydney and Collins was ordered to finish her off and pick up any survivors. As he approached the stricken Italian vessel it opened fire with guns and torpedoes in a last brave act of defiance. Sydney's response was swift and final with her 6-inch guns soon reducing the destroyer to a burning wreck. The Espero then healed over and sank.
Captain Collins immediately ordered his boats away and the next two hours were spent rescuing survivors in the gathering darkness. When it became too dangerous for Sydney to remain in the area any longer, Collins instructed that one of his boats was to be fully provisioned and left behind to ensure that any survivors they had missed were given a sporting chance of survival. Those recovered by Sydney's crew were well cared for, to the extent that when it came time for them to disembark in Alexandria, many requested that they remain onboard as Sydney's prisoners rather than go to a Prisoner of War camp.
On 30 June the Seventh Cruiser Squadron came under several aerial attacks from Italian bombers during its return passage to Alexandria. This was to be the first of many that Sydney would emerge from unscathed, and in the weeks that followed she earned the reputation as a 'lucky ship'. Later, in July, during a particularly virulent attack, Admiral Cunningham observed that Sydney completely disappeared in a line of towering pillars of spray as high as church steeples. When she emerged I signaled: 'Are you all right?' to which came the rather dubious reply from that stout hearted Australian, Captain JA Collins, 'I hope so'.
Battle of Calabria
The fleet next sailed from Alexandria late in the evening of 7 July and the following day came under intense air attack from the Italian air force. During one of these raids the cruiser HMS Gloucester was hit by a bomb which killed her captain and seventeen others. Later that evening a reconnaissance aircraft reported sighting two enemy battleships steering south about a hundred miles north-west of Benghazi. These capital ships were supported by six cruisers and seven destroyers and were later observed to alter course to the north. Cunningham immediately determined to maneuver his force between the enemy fleet and their base at Taranto to try and cut them off and bring them into action. The following day planes from the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle relocated the Italian ships and Cunningham's fleet closed them rapidly. At approximately 15:00 HMS Neptune, part of the vanguard of cruisers which included Sydney, reported sighting four Italian cruisers, and shortly afterwards the entire enemy fleet came into view, consisting of two battleships, twelve cruisers and numerous destroyers. The vanguard, greatly outnumbered, quickly found itself in action when the Italian heavy cruisers opened fire on them at 15:14.
Cunningham, in HMS Warspite, soon came to the assistance of the beleaguered cruisers and the battleship's fire forced the enemy to retire under the cover of smoke, after which there was a lull in the action. By then, the battleships HMS Malaya and Royal Sovereign were approaching the scene of action as were the British destroyers which were concentrating for an attack.
Shortly before 16:00, at a range of roughly thirteen miles, Warspite opened fire on the two enemy battleships and succeeded in straddling them. Moments later the Italian flagship, Guilio Cesare, was hit by a 15-inch shell from Warspite causing the Italians to turn away under a dense screen of smoke.
Meanwhile, the Allied cruisers had rejoined the action and were attempting to close the enemy destroyers. By 16:40, however, the engagement was all but over, and while it did not culminate in the much anticipated full scale Fleet action, Sydney had again been in the thick of it and survived unscathed with no casualties and only a few of her signal halyards shot away. During the action she expended over 400 rounds of her 6-inch ammunition and by the time she returned to Alexandria she had expended her entire outfit of 4-inch anti-aircraft ammunition beating off air attacks.
These attacks came as the Battle Fleet chased the Italians to within twenty-five miles of the coast of Calabria before breaking off the pursuit and altering course for a position south of Malta. The Fleet continued to be harassed from the air as it made its way back to Alexandria where it arrived on 13 July. There Sydney docked briefly for hull maintenance and to take on ammunition before her next patrol.
Back in Australia, Sydney's exploits in the Mediterranean were followed with fervor and within weeks she was to make headlines that would see her become a household name.
Battle of Cape Spada
On 18 July, Sydney sailed from Alexandria in company with the destroyer HMS Havock bound for the Gulf of Athens. Together they had orders to support Commander H St L Nicolson's destroyer flotilla consisting of HMS Hyperion, Hero, Hasty and Ilex in the Aegean Sea. Nicolson was to intercept any Italian shipping attempting passage to or from the Dodecanese and also carry out an anti-submarine sweep from east to west along the north coast of the island of Crete.
Collins, realizing that Nicolson's westward sweep might expose him to enemy attack in the restricted waters of the Aegean, adjusted his course and speed so that he was better placed to provide support if required. In pre-radar days, dawn was often the most dangerous time of day and on 19 July this was to prove to be the case when Nicolson, at the western end of his sweep, sighted two enemy Condottieri Class cruisers which soon opened fire on his destroyers. With little choice other than to turn and run, and not knowing that Sydney and Havock were closing his position, Nicolson made an enemy contact report and began a speedy retiring action towards what he believed to be a far distant Sydney.
Collins, hundreds of miles closer than anyone realised, prepared his ship for action but maintained strict communications silence so as not to alert the enemy to his presence. At 08:20 the two Italian cruisers were sighted and eight minutes later, with tension mounting, Sydney hoisted her battle ensigns and opened fire at a range of approximately ten miles. Both the enemy and the fleeing British destroyers were taken by surprise at the sudden appearance of Sydney and before long hits were registered on one of the enemy cruisers, the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere.
By then Nicolson's destroyers were in wireless contact with Sydney and the two groups joined forces north of Cape Spada. Sydney had scored hits on both enemy cruisers and it became apparent to Collins that they were attempting to retreat towards the Anti-Kithera Channel under cover of smoke. The enemy gunfire become sporadic at that point of the action and one of the cruisers, later identified as the Bartolomeo Colleoni, was seen to be on fire and losing headway, before coming to a complete stop.
Two of Nicolson's destroyers, Hyperion and Ilex, were subsequently ordered to finish her off and pick up survivors. They were later relieved by Havock which remained in the area until she came under the threat of enemy air attack. In all some 550 Italians, including her Captain, were rescued by the destroyers.
Meanwhile, Collins continued to chase the remaining cruiser, the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere. At 10:25, by which time Sydney was low on ammunition and coming within range of Italian bomber aircraft, Collins broke off the pursuit. During the action Sydney sustained just one hit to her forward funnel which caused only minor damage and no serious casualties.
Intent on retribution, the Italian air force was soon on the scene and doing its best to sink the Sydney which continued to lead a charmed life, escaping several very near misses. These attacks prevailed throughout the afternoon and Havock, now bound for Alexandria, was damaged in one of them, although not seriously. At 11:00 on 20 July Sydney entered Alexandria harbour with the Australian national flag flying proudly from her foremast and to the rousing cheers of the men of the Mediterranean fleet.
The Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Cunningham, boarded Sydney from his barge to personally congratulate Captain Collins and his crew. He was to recall in his memoirs:
"For this fine, brisk action which showed the high efficiency and magnificent fighting qualities of the Royal Australian Navy, Captain Collins was immediately awarded the Companion of the Bath, by His Majesty, a well-deserved honour."
His report to the Admiralty concerning the action was similarly flattering, recording:
"The credit for this successful and gallant action belongs mainly to Captain J.A. Collins, C.B., R.A.N., who by his quick appreciation of the situation, offensive spirit and resolute handling of H.M.A.S. Sydney, achieved a victory over a superior force which has had important strategical effects. It is significant that, so far as is known, no Italian surface forces have returned into or near the Aegean since this action was fought."
Throughout Australia news of Sydney's victory dominated the newspapers. The Melbourne Herald of 20 July 1940 reported in its evening edition that:
"Once again the Australian Navy has shown the splendid fighting quality and efficiency of the last war. Sydney outfought and destroyed the famous Emden and now her younger sister writes another page of naval history that will thrill the civilized world."
And thrill it, she did. Newspapers in London and New York enthusiastically acknowledged Sydney's victory over the two superior Italian cruisers, while the Sydney Morning Herald of 22 July 1940 announced that:
"Flags will be flown on all Government buildings throughout New South Wales today in honour of a great naval exploit."
With this victory, Sydney's aura of invincibility became cemented in the minds of the Australian people. On the other side of the world she had survived intense air attacks, taken on the might of the Italian Navy and snatched a decisive victory through a combination of initiative and bravado in the face of overwhelming odds. Her exploits were now becoming legendary. Almost every Australian community had one of its own serving in the cruiser and as she continued to add to her already impressive war record, so their pride in the ship, which Admiral Cunningham had dubbed a 'stormy petrel', continued to grow.
Throughout the remainder of 1940 Sydney participated in further patrols, anti-submarine sweeps, convoy escort duties and shore bombardments in the Mediterranean and Adriatic. In January 1941 she received orders recalling her to Australia and as she departed Alexandria she received many farewell signals from the ships which she had fought alongside throughout 1940. Admiral Cunningham expressed his deep personal regret over her departure but also conveyed his hope that 'your countrymen will give you the reception you deserve'.
During Sydney's passage home she passed through the Suez Canal and escorted several small convoys through the Red Sea before entering the Indian Ocean. There she conducted a sweep past Mogadishu, Somalia, looking for Italian vessels before proceeding independently to Fremantle where she arrived on 5 February to be greeted by a large contingent of the media, photographers and well wishers. Disappointingly for the Western Australians onboard, the visit was short lived as she sailed the same afternoon for Sydney, having taken on stores and fresh provisions as well as embarking a small group of reporters and their camera men.
Sydney arrived in her namesake harbour shortly before midnight on Sunday 9 February 1941, anchoring in Watson's Bay. The following morning she weighed anchor and slowly made her way down the harbour towards her assigned berth at Circular Quay, amidst an escort of scores of motor launches carrying excited relatives and friends.
Admiral Cunningham’s hope that the men of Sydney would "get the reception they deserved" was certainly fulfilled, for when the cruiser arrived at the quay she was met by a huge crowd of people who had come to greet her. Many VIPs had also assembled to welcome Sydney home, including the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, the Minister for the Navy, Billy Hughes and the First Naval Member Sir Ragnar Colvin. Following an addresses from them the crew of Sydney went ashore where they were embraced by their friends and families. News of Sydney’s arrival home dominated the newspapers which covered her return in detail over the next three days, making much of her triumphant return home.
On Tuesday 11 February, the Premier of New South Wales Mr Mair and the City of Sydney Lord Mayor, Alderman Crick came on board the cruiser to present a plaque to the ship commemorating her victory over the Bartolomeo Colleoni on behalf of the citizens of Sydney. The plaque consisted of two large cast medallions mounted on oak and was affixed to the gun housing of ‘Y’ turret below the sighting ports. With the unveiling of the plaque completed, the crew was fallen in on the quay side behind Sydney’s band and they then marched through the streets of Sydney to a civic reception which had been arranged for them at the Town Hall.
Thousands of people turned out to watch the men parade through the city and children were given the day off school so that they too could enjoy the celebration. At the Town Hall, each member of Sydney’s crew was presented with a smaller medallion of the same design as that awarded to the ship, all of which were individually inscribed with the recipient’s personal details.
For many of those present it was a day never to be forgotten. The victorious Sydney had come home at a time when the threat to Australian shipping in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans was increasing. Evidence that German raiders had been active around the Australian coastline was also mounting, indeed Bass Strait and the entrance to Port Phillip Bay had both been mined by raiders, and pressure had been brought to bear on the Government to bring the RAN’s big ships home to deal with the mounting threat.
Sydney’s return was both timely and symbolic. The Government had not only heeded the call, but had brought home the battle hardened Sydney. In the eyes of the Australian public, all would be well now that Sydney was home - none would have believed that in less than a year she would be gone, taking all those onboard with her.
The Australia Station
With the excitement surrounding Sydney’s return abating, and with censorship reapplied to her movements, the Navy turned its attention toward more practical matters, sending Sydney into dry dock for maintenance while her crew was sent on leave.
On 28 February, with her docking completed, the cruiser sailed from Sydney for Fremantle where she began a period of routine convoy escort duties operating off the Western Australian coast. In April she returned to the eastern seaboard escorting the troopship Queen Mary to Jervis Bay before undertaking a high speed passage via Fremantle to Singapore to carry the First Naval Member to a high level Allied conference. While in Singapore it was decided that Captain Collins would be appointed the Australian Naval Representative to the Commander-in-Chief China (based in Singapore) Vice Admiral (Sir) Geoffrey Layton.
And so it was that in Fremantle on 15 May 1941, 'Colleoni John', as he had been nicknamed by his crew, handed over command of Sydney to Captain Joseph Burnett, RAN. In later years, following a long and distinguished career in the RAN, Collins reflected:
"To me there has never been before nor will there ever be again, a ship quite to compare with the cruiser Sydney of World War II."
Like Collins, Joseph Burnett had entered the Royal Australian Naval College as one of the original entry of cadets in 1913. He was rated cadet-captain in 1914 and went on to specialize in gunnery. He served in HMAS Australia during World War 1 and a number of Royal Navy vessels between the wars which included service abroad during the Spanish Civil War. Promoted to captain in 1938 he was serving in England when war broke out and returned home in late 1939 to take up the appointment of Assistant Chief of Naval Staff.
Burnett took his new command to sea for the first time between 17-21 May to conduct routine patrols and exercises in the Indian Ocean. On 26 May, Sydney relieved HMAS Hobart as the escort for the troopship Zealandia which was making an easterly passage from Melbourne to Singapore via Fremantle. After a short stop-over in Fremantle the two vessels continued their voyage on 31 May and arrived in the vicinity of the Sunda Strait on 6 June. There Sydney was relieved by HMS Danae before returning independently to Fremantle where she arrived four days later.
Zealandia was to become a familiar sight to the men of Sydney as her next assignment was to provide escort for the troopship during her return passage from the Sunda Strait to Fremantle later in the month. On 24 June, Zealandia was again under Sydney’s watchful eyes as part of a small convoy designated F.S.1 taking passage across the Great Australian Bight bound for Melbourne and Sydney respectively.
A change of scenery came in July when Captain Burnett and his crew escorted the Berwickshire and Gleniffer to New Zealand before conducting a resupply run to Noumea. She returned to Sydney on 25 July to escort convoy U.S.11B to Melbourne and after an intermediate docking in early August was again crossing the Tasman Sea bound for Auckland, New Zealand as escort for the Awatea. Following a three day stopover, the two vessels sailed on 14 August for Suva where they arrived a few days later. Sydney returned home independently on 28 August having escorted the Awatea beyond Samoa.
Meanwhile in the far distant Indian Ocean there had been a number of disturbing developments. Reports of spurious wireless signals coupled with the unexplained disappearance of several merchant ships had raised concerns that their might be a raider at large. This was indeed the case.
The German Navy’s largest auxiliary cruiser, the Kormoran, now disguised as the Dutch merchant ship MV Straat Malakka, had entered the Indian Ocean some months previously and was making her presence felt throughout the region. Adept at subterfuge and with a well drilled and disciplined crew she was more than a match for any unsuspecting merchant ship. Her captain, Kapitän zur See Theodor Anton Detmers, however, had no desire to encounter a warship from what he termed Australia’s ‘grey funnel’ line.
On 4 September, Sydney sailed from Port Jackson in company with the large troop transport Queen Mary. Picking up the Queen Elizabeth en route, the three vessels later rendezvoused with HMAS Canberra which assumed responsibility for their safe passage to Fremantle. Sydney then called at Melbourne to refuel and make good minor defects.
Her next voyage, escorting convoy U.S.12B to Fremantle would see Sydney leave the eastern seaboard for the last time. Never again would she sail through Sydney Heads, never again would she pass the mast of her forebear and never again would she be feted by the citizens of the city whose name she carried. As she shepherded her convoy west, her date with destiny was fast approaching as the Kormoran slowly made her way east towards the Western Australian coast.
Sydney arrived in Fremantle on 25 September and three days later continued on with U.S.12B on the now familiar route to the Sunda Strait where she was relieved by HMS Glasgow. Many of Sydney’s crew viewed this work as being a ‘milk run’ in comparison to the high tempo operations in the Mediterranean, yet there were subtle signs starting to appear, leading some to believe that things were not as benign as they appeared.
One of these signs came on the evening of 3 October when Sydney sighted an object floating on the sea, which on investigation appeared to be a large gunnery target. The wooden structure was recovered by one of Sydney’s boats and hoisted on board where it was examined and dismantled. Captain Burnett reported the discovery to Naval Headquarters in Melbourne stating that it was ‘difficult to find an explanation of this large structure which fitted all the facts’. He went on to express ‘that there is just a possibility that it may have been dropped by a raider’.
Days later an unidentified vessel was sighted by HMAS Yandra eight miles from Rottnest Island in the early hours of the morning of 6 October. The vessel melted into the darkness and in spite of an air search, no trace of it was found. Speculation concerning the identity of the vessel became the subject of considerable attention in the Combined Operations Intelligence Centre summaries over the next few days which again raised the possibility that a raider may have been operating in the area. As a precaution, minesweepers were ordered to operate ahead of Queen Mary and Sydney, both of which were due to arrive in Fremantle, while anti-submarine patrols were maintained during daylight hours.
Over the next few weeks Sydney conducted exercises off the Western Australian coastline and conducted short visits to Geraldton and Bunbury. Throughout 1941, Sydney had become a familiar sight in Western Australian waters and with each visit the bonds between the cruiser and the citizens of Western Australia were further strengthened.
On 1 November Sydney sailed from Fremantle to again rendezvous with Zealandia which was on passage from Melbourne with HMAS Adelaide as her escort. Sydney relieved Adelaide off King George’s Sound, Albany, before escorting the troop ship to Fremantle where they arrived on 9 November. Two days later Sydney sailed with Zealandia on the familiar ‘milk run’ to the Sunda Strait, signalling shore authorities before she sailed that she would return to port in the P.M. of Thursday 20 November.
Sydney’s passage to the Sunda Strait was without incident and at noon on 17 November she rendezvoused with HMS Durban which assumed responsibility for escorting Zealandia on to Singapore. Relieved of her escort duty, Sydney reversed course and resumed the now well-worn navigational track that would take her back to Fremantle.
As she disappeared over the horizon, none of those watching in Zealandia or Durban suspected that they would be among the last to see her and that it would be a further sixty-six years before friendly eyes once more gazed upon the pride of the Royal Australian Navy.*
*Author John Perryman courtesy David L Mearns, 'The Search for the Sydney, How Australia's Greatest Maritime Mystery was Solved', Harper Collins, Sydney, 2009.
Loss of HMAS Sydney
The reconstruction of events leading up to Sydney's disappearance relies primarily on information gathered from interrogations of German survivors from the raider HSK Kormoran which Sydney engaged on the afternoon of 19 November 1941. The following is an account of Sydney's final action and subsequent loss based on surviving records, extensive research and the findings of a Chief of Defence Force inquiry concerning the loss of Sydney released in July 2009. Times reflected in this narrative are in G time zone (UTC+7) as recorded by the Germans.
Returning from her convoy duties to Java, Sydney was proceeding south along the north west coast of Western Australia when she sighted what appeared to be a merchant vessel at about 16:00 on 19 November 1941, some 130 miles west of Shark Bay.
The ship was in fact the Kormoran. Sydney challenged the vessel continuously using her searchlight while at the same time closing the range between the two ships. Merchant vessels were known to be less efficient at visual signalling and the Germans exploited this knowledge through their actions on their flag deck and by their slow response to Sydney's visual challenges. At 17:00, to further the deception, Kormoran broadcast a 'suspicious ship' message, feigning a cry for help in the name of Straat Malakka.
Sydney's efforts to establish the true identity of the vessel resulted in her closing the range to a point where she no longer had the advantage of her superior armament. At approximately 17:15 Sydney had drawn almost abeam of Kormoran to starboard, less than a mile distant. Both ships were steering west south west at about 15 knots. Still wary, the Australian cruiser kept her main armament trained on the mysterious ship and her amphibious aircraft was on the catapult with its engine running. She then signalled, both by flags and flashing light; 'Where bound?' Kormoran replied 'Batavia'. The crucial moment then came when Sydney hoisted a two flag signal consisting of the letters 'IK' which the raider could not interpret. They were in fact the two centre letters of the Straat Malakka's four letter secret identification signal (IIKP). With no reply forthcoming Sydney signalled in plain language 'Show your secret sign'.
Finally, when concealment of his vessel's true identity was no longer possible, and with the advantage of surprise, Detmers ordered the Dutch colours to be struck, hoisted the German naval ensign and opened fire at approximately 17:30 with all armament at a range 'somewhat more than a mile'.
It is likely that the raider's first salvo destroyed Sydney's bridge, with the result that her primary control was immediately put out of action. Sydney's own guns opened fire almost simultaneously with a full salvo that passed over Kormoran without inflicting damage. Kormoran again scored hits on Sydney with two salvos again hitting her bridge and midships section. According to the Germans all of Kormoran's armament was brought to bear on Sydney, concentrating on her bridge, torpedo tubes and anti aircraft batteries.
For a few seconds after her initial salvo Sydney did not reply. It appears that her forward 'A' and 'B' turrets were put out of action leaving only her after turrets 'X' and 'Y' to respond. It was reported by the Germans that Sydney's 'X' turret opened fast and accurate fire, hitting Kormoran in the funnel and engine room. 'Y' turret is said to have fired only two or three salvos, all of which went over. At about this time one of the raider's two torpedoes struck Sydney under 'A' and 'B' turrets. The other passed close ahead of the stricken ship, which was subjected to enfilading fire.
With her bow low in the water, Sydney then turned sharply towards Kormoran as though attempting to ram. As she did so, the top of 'B' turret was blown off and flew overboard, the cruiser then passed under Kormoran's stern, heading to the southward and losing way. Kormoran, maintaining her course and speed, was now on fire in the engine room where hits by Sydney's 'X' turret had caused severe damage. Smoke from the fire hid Sydney from Kormoran's bridge but the raider continued to engage with her after guns as the range opened to approximately 4400 yards.
At about 17:45 Sydney was seen to fire a torpedo when Detmers was turning his ship to port to bring his broadside to bear, however, as he did so Kormoran's engines began to fail. The torpedo track was sighted and it was subsequently avoided. Simultaneously the raider's engines broke down completely.
Sydney, crippled and on fire from the bridge to the after funnel, steamed slowly to the south returning only sporadic fire from her secondary armament. Although by now the range had opened to 6600 yards Sydney continued to receive steady hits from Kormoran's port broadside. At 18:00, at a range of 7700 yards, Kormoran then fired one torpedo that missed Sydney's stern. Although this fierce action had lasted only half an hour both ships had been dealt mortal blows.
Kormoran fired her last shot at 18:25 at a range of about 11,000 yards. The Germans claim to have fired approximately 450 rounds from her main armament and hundreds from her anti-aircraft batteries. With the gathering gloom the form of Sydney disappeared from view and was last seen by the Germans about ten miles off, heading approximately south south east. Thereafter, until about 22:00, all that was seen was a distant glare then occasional flickerings until midnight at which time all trace of Sydney disappeared.
Of Sydney's total complement of 42 officers and 603 ratings, none survived. This number included six members of the Royal Australian Air Force and four civilian canteen staff. The only material evidence recovered from Sydney was an Australian naval type Carley life float recovered eight days after the action by HMAS Heros and an Australian naval pattern lifebelt recovered by HMAS Wyrallah. The Carley float is now preserved in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Inherited Battle Honours RABAUL 1914, 'Emden'1914, NORTH SEA 1915-18 Battle Honours CALABRIA 1940, SPADA 1940, MEDITERRANEAN 1940-43, ‘Kormoran’ 1941.
The order to abandon Kormoran was given by Detmers between 20:00-21:00 and all accessible life saving equipment in the fire free portion of the ship was put overboard. At this period some 380 officers and men remained alive. Almost all the officers and enough ratings to man the guns, waited on board while the final scuttling arrangements were made. Remaining life saving equipment consisted of two steel boats located forward in No. 2 hold, however damage to the ship delayed the launching of these.
At midnight, with smoke increasing heavily on the mining deck, the scuttling charge was fired, and the last boat cast off. Half an hour later at 00:35 the mines carried by Kormoran exploded and she sank rapidly stern first. During the final abandonment a large rubber boat sank without warning, throwing some 60 men into the sea who drowned.
At 17:00 (Western Australian time) on 24 November 1941 the British tanker Trocas bound Palembang for Fremantle reported by W/T (wireless telegraphy) the rescue of 25 German seamen from a raft sighted some 115 miles west north west of Carnarvon. This was the first positive evidence of a possible naval engagement involving the overdue Sydney. Naval authorities immediately despatched four RAN auxiliary craft with armed guards on board to rendezvous with Trocas. At the time of receipt of the signal from Trocas air searches seeking Sydney were already in progress.
Unbeknown to the naval authorities the transport Aquitania, had also sighted a raft and rescued 26 Germans the previous day (23 November). Maintaining W/T silence her command passed on no information of this until 27 November, when she informed the signal station at Wilsons Promontory of her discovery.
The air searches produced their first results early on the morning of 25 November. At 07:00 a lifeboat was sighted north north west of Carnarvon. Further sightings during the day revealed up to five boats in the area at that time.
Eventually two boats, those commanded by Lieutenant Commander Henry Meyer and Chief Petty Officer Paul Kohn came ashore unaided some 50 and 70 miles north of Carnarvon respectively. Organised land parties were despatched and apprehended these groups during the afternoon of their landing. The Steamer Koolinda picked up a third boat, Centaur one (containing Detmers) and HMAS Yandra one. Based on records made at the time the total number of Kormoran survivors rescued was as follows: